By Clint Confehr
Senior Staff Writer
A countywide economic and community development panel on Tuesday acknowledged general points about consolidation of local government, but reached no conclusion on whether it would save taxpayers money.
"We know this is kind of a hot potato," Dave Kennedy said to open a discussion by the Joint Economic and Community Development Board. He chairs the JECDB, which includes the county mayor and those of the four municipalities.
Board members noted a lack of specifics on how two or more of the governments might merge, or if consolidation of various services would be worthwhile, and that was a bone of contention for County Commissioner Don Ledford who asked Commission Chairman Mike Waggoner to form an exploratory committee. Instead, Ledford and County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett were assigned to ask municipal leaders what they thought.
"This thing has blossomed up," Chapel Hill Mayor Carl Cooper said. "We can't ignore it."
But mayors don't rule alone, Cooper said, reflecting his reliance on the wisdom of the aldermen with whom he serves. Ledford said he suggested a county study since the commission represents residents of municipalities and those in rural parts of the county.
"The biggest thing I hear (from residents of the 5th District,)" Ledford said, "is a concern for costs and maintaining services."
Since few, if any, politicians or property owners would advocate increasing taxpayers' costs, Ledford suggested examination of new methods for government.
"You have to look at what you're doing and how you do it," the 5th District county commissioner said, emphasizing he does not know if merging local governments and/or their services would be better. "I don't know that we'll know without critically analyzing it.
"It disturbs me ... to watch people as they become involved in government ... and take ownership of their area," he said, concluding that some "say they are ready to talk about it ... but [say] 'Don't talk about my program...'
"They alarm me...
"It appears there are some people who have taken the position that it's all or nothing," Ledford said. "That's not my position."
Kennedy noted state and federal government agencies have the same problem, but then Eric Michael, chairman of the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce and president of Michael Wealth Management, asked about local government debt.
Marshall County spends 45 cents from its $3.09 property tax rate to pay off debt. Two municipal leaders estimated their towns' debt at about $200,000 each.
Borrowed money is examined at least annually when budgets are assembled, Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods said, adding that if savings are seen as possible from merging governments or services, then the public must be informed on what services cost.
Blending services could be examined for police and judicial services, she said, mentioning several other areas. Meanwhile, people don't want their services cut when they affect them personally.
Utilities were mentioned, but the state law requiring them to be self-sufficient was not part of the discussion. Tax revenues are not to support utilities. They're to operate only on ratepayers' monthly payments for those services.
Like Cooper, Cornersville Mayor Amos Davis noted he has just one vote among aldermen, "but from what I've heard, there's not sufficient support for this" idea.
Liggett reported hearing a similar sentiment.
"Most people say 'Don't waste your time,'" the county mayor said.
Regardless, if there's a study of consolidating or merging governments, Davis said, then it would not take effect unless a majority of voters approved.
The idea was examined years ago, but Terry Wallace, a member of the JECDB who preceded Liggett as mayor, said, "It never gained much traction."
Meanwhile, Maury County voters are scheduled to vote on a referendum on March 6, the presidential primary election day. A charter has been drafted and The (Columbia) Daily Herald reported Tuesday that the proposed charter might be changed this week to create "a method to recall elected officials."
The proposed consolidation includes only Columbia and Maury County.